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Elvis costello-national ransom.jpg


Middle English ransoun, from Anglo-French rançun, from Latin redemption-, redemptio


  • 1: a consideration paid or demanded for the release of someone or something from captivity
  • 2: The action or means of freeing oneself from a penalty; a sum of money paid to obtain pardon for an offence or imposed as a penalty, esp. one exacted for a significant offence; a fine.
  • 3: A sum of money, esp. a large one, such as one might pay as a punitive fine or as a payment for the return of a hostage.


Ransom is the practice of holding a prisoner or item to extort money or property to secure their release, or it can refer to the sum of money involved. In an early German law, a similar concept was called Weregild.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, ransom became an important custom of chivalric warfare. An important knight, especially nobility or royalty, was worth a significant sum of money if captured, but nothing if he was killed. For this reason, the practice of ransom contributed to the development of heraldry, which allowed knights to advertise their identities, and by implication their ransom value, and made them less likely to be killed out of hand. Examples include Richard the Lion Heart and Bertrand du Guesclin.

When ransom means "payment", the word comes via Old French rançon from Latin redemptio = "buying back": compare "redemption".

In Judaism ransom is called kofer-nefesh (Hebrew: כפר נפש‎). Among other uses, the word was applied to the poll tax of a half shekel to be paid by every male above twenty years at the census.

Although ransom is usually demanded only after the kidnapping of a person, it is not unheard of for thieves to demand ransom for the return of an inanimate object or body part. In 1987, thieves broke into the tomb of Argentinian president Juan Perón and stole his hands; they later demanded $8 million US for their return. The ransom was not paid.

See also